Special Report: Cabin Electronics

 - September 25, 2006, 10:50 AM

For a long time–too long some say–the industry has been struggling to give passengers on corporate aircraft the same business and entertainment tools at 41,000 feet that they enjoy at home or in their offices. And the truth is it’s going to take a little longer. The reasons are multiple–size, weight and power considerations; logistical complications unique to airborne environments; and the additional complexity of certifying the equipment to meet FAA requirements.

Take high-speed Internet access, for example. The good news is that it’s a lot closer to reality than it was just a few years ago. The bad news is that “high speed” is a relative term.

Inmarsat and its partners refer to Swift64 as providing an in-flight high-speed Internet connection, calling it Swift64 to reflect the data exchange rate of 64 kbps. But the fact is, 64 kbps is fast only when compared to what it was several years ago. When compared with equipment available in the typical ground-bound office, better ask how “slow” it is rather than how “fast” it is. In fact, most Swift64 customers are opting for dual- or quadruple-channel systems. And even at the more “civilized” rate of 256 kbps, it is a fraction of that of the typical office connection in which access speeds of three to five megabytes per second are common. That’s about 46 to 78 times faster than a DSL or cable modem connection.

Midcoast Aviation, a major completion and refurbishment center in Cahokia, Ill., has completed more than a dozen Swift64 installations, according to director of avionics Bob Staples.

Buyers of the multi-channel systems, said Staples, have higher levels of satisfaction than those who opted for a single-channel system.

But do not despair. SwiftBroadband (not to be confused with the Australian telecommunications company of the same name) expects to bring its new 432-kbps in-flight system on line later this year. Bond two of those and you’ve got something approaching Internet respectability.

The main suppliers of Swift64 and SwiftBroadband claim that it will be possible to convert the Swift64 equipment to SwiftBroadband with simple software upgrades once the higher bandwidth services become available. On the other hand, Inmarsat has said it may require special SwiftBroadband hardware, which would mean sending the Swift64 box back to the manufacturer for an upgrade.

Alas, no one seems to know what the price of SwiftBroadband service will be. Swift64 currently costs about $8 or more per minute for so-called circuit-mode data, which refers to a connection that is always on. Company officials have hinted the per-minute pricing for SwiftBroadband could drop to levels that would stop the erosion of Inmarsat’s voice-calling business to competitor Iridium–about $1.50 a minute for calls placed anywhere in the world through its network. That is considerably lower than the $9 to $12 per minute that Inmarsat can cost.

Coming Soon to a Smaller Business Jet
While the size of the satellite antenna that must be installed atop the tail limits Inmarsat Swift services to larger business jets, that seems to be changing and there are whispers that some equipment might fit airplanes as small as a King Air.

According to EMS Satcom strategic marketing manager Alan Mak, future antenna technology is a key piece of the puzzle that will allow manufacturers to bring true high-speed-data service to a much broader range of airplanes. EMS Satcom is among those. The company’s new high-gain AMT-3800 antenna is fuselage-mounted, about 2 inches high, 12 inches wide and 38 inches long.

“With the AMT-3800 we’re able to serve midsize business jets and turboprops, [and] in terms of mechanical and size limitations we’ve reached a new threshold,” said Mak. EMS has also introduced the AMT-3500, an intermediate-gain antenna for even smaller aircraft.

EMS Satcom competitors Chelton Satcom and CMC Electronics have also announced sleek, lightweight Arinc 781-compatible antennas that will fit on smaller business airplanes.

Chelton’s HGA-7000 can be mounted on midsize and larger business jets, according to the company.

Measuring 33.9 inches long, 11.77 inches wide and 1.88 inches high, the 18.7-pound HGA-7000 antenna is the smallest and lightest in this class. Electronic steering eliminates the need for moving parts and–along with hermetic sealing of the antenna–contributes to what the Lewisville, Texas company believes will be a high level of reliability.

The recently introduced phased-array SatLite satcom antenna from CMC Electronics is touted by its manufacturer as being “optimized” for business jets. The top-mounted antenna with its integrated beam steering unit is based on the proprietary technology and architecture usedin CMC’s CMA-2102 high-gain antenna system and supports Inmarsat Aero-H, Aero-H+, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband satcom services.

Like its competitors, the SatLite antenna, introduced last June, is compatible with newer Arinc 781 and 741 legacy terminal equipment. It measures 39.9 inches in length, 13.1 inches wide and 2.64 inches high and weighs 16.75 pounds. The antenna is listed at $75,000, uninstalled.

More recently, Starling Advanced Communications introduced a Ku-band satcom antenna the Israeli-based company says will bring high-speed connectivity in a package custom-designed for midsize business jets.

Starling, formed in 2003 and jointly owned by Israeli defense contractors Rafael Development, Elbit Systems and Elron, is a relatively new name in the satcom antenna market.

What makes its product unique is its ability to expand mechanically when in use to provide high-bandwidth data transfers at higher latitudes. When the antenna surface is in the flat position, it receives signals just as a flat-surface phased-array antenna does. But at higher latitudes, as the satellite signal strength is degraded, the antenna opens in a manner similar to Venetian blinds into individual panels. Even so, it comes in a relatively small package and has low power requirements.

The company claims that data transfer rates will be in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 megabytes per second.

According to Starling CEO Micha Lawrence, the company has met with Gulfstream to discuss bringing the antenna to the midsize G150, which is built by Israel Aircraft Industries.

Starling has also met with Rockwell Collins executives who are grappling with design matters related to the eXchange high-speed-data service that will use the Connexion by Boeing satellite link.

The twin-panel Mini-Mijet antenna is designed to be installed atop an aircraft fuselage. It is 14 inches in diameter, sits five inches high and weighs 55 pounds. The price has yet to be determined, but Lawrence said it would be less than current Ku-band antennas used with Connexion and SkyLink services, both of which are larger and heavier.

The first flight of a Mijet antenna is expected to take place in April on a Boeing 737, marking the start of the certification program.

Inmarsat Has Competition
There are other providers of in-flight high-speed Internet services–Connexion by Boeing and Arinc Direct’s SkyLink. Both provide relatively fast speeds, but possess limited coverage areas. Connexion provides data access over most of the Northern hemisphere. SkyLink offers coverage only over the U.S.

Rockwell Collins and Boeing have announced an agreement to provide broadband data exchange for the corporate aviation market with the rollout of Collins eXchange, an Inmarsat rival. It will combine the real-time satellite communications capabilities of Connexion by Boeing broadband network with Collins Airshow 21 cabin information and entertainment system architecture and hardware. The eXchange package will debut on two Global Express XRS business jets, as well as Bombardier’s Global 5000 demonstrator.

AirCell of Louisville, Colo., is also in the game, with the introduction last fall of its Axxess system for medium-to-large business aircraft. The multi-channel wireless and broadband-ready satcom system is nearly available, with certification on track for the second quarter.

Iridium channels provide voice and narrowband data services, while expansion ports permit the addition of two more channels. Through the system’s Ethernet port, operators can add a high-speed Inmarsat connection on a plug-and-play basis. The standard Axxess headset includes a color display, advanced noise-canceling and standard ear bud/headset jacks. Baseline list price is $47,000.

Last month Cessna Aircraft selected Axxess as a factory option on its Citation X, Sovereign and XLS models. It will be available on the Citation line starting in the third quarter.

Satcom Direct, a Florida-based provider of satcom service, has introduced a new service called Aero X that the company claims will provide significant increases in the Swift64 data transmission rates.

Using Satcom Direct’s proprietary compression algorithms and EMS Satcom’s cabin network accelerator hardware, Aero X can reach data speeds from 500 kbps to one megabyte per second.

Gulfstream has received multiple STCs for installation of its Broad Band Multi-link high-speed Internet connection system on several of its aircraft models. The system uses SkyLink service to provide Internet access at speeds comparable to those of ground-based cable or DSL lines.

Gulfstream is guaranteeing minimum connection speeds of 512 to and 128 kbps from the aircraft and says normal data speeds with the system range from 700 kbps to more than one megabyte per second. In fact, the Savannah, Ga.-based OEM claims data speeds as high as 3.5 megabytes per second are possible.

Last summer, Rockwell Collins’ new SAT-6100 satellite communication system made its debut aboard a Bombardier Global 5000. The system is a baseline component of Collins Ethernet-based Airshow 21 cabin electronic system, standard on the Canadian-built business jet. The SAT-6100 consists of the Rockwell Collins SRT-2100 satellite terminal and one or two HST-2100 high-speed transceivers providing three Aero-I/H/H+ channels and one or two channels of Swift64 high-speed data.

The SAT-6100 interfaces with all Inmarsat-approved high-gain antennas, including top- or fin-mounted setups. In addition, the SAT-6100 can be used with any Inmarsat-approved intermediate-gain antenna to accommodate Aero-I service. In the future, the company said, the system will include Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband capabilities and permit data transmission speeds of up to 432 kbps.

Airborne Cellphone Use Nearing Reality
In the halls of government, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is attempting to come up with a set of rules governing the in-flight use of personal cellphones. At the same time, the FAA is taking a wait-and-see approach and will make its decision based on that of the FCC.

Meanwhile, companies are moving ahead to produce systems that will provide in-flight cellphone service. OnAir, the in-flight voice and data communication joint venture of Airbus, SITA and Tenzing, appears to be among the leaders but has announced its intention to focus exclusively on the airline sector. AeroMobile, by contrast, is targeting both the airlines and business aviation.

The company was formed last year as part of an alliance among Arinc, Inmarsat and Telenor with the intent of “bringing to the market a fully defined mobile service.” The system was tested successfully on a Boeing 737 last fall and, according to AeroMobile director David Coiley, certification by European aviation authorities is expected later this year, with U.S. certification to follow “perhaps in 2007.” He added that AeroMobile is already engaged in talks with business aircraft manufacturers and noted that the airline technology required is equally applicable to business aviation.

One of the minor glitches with airborne use of personal cellphones is in  cellphone technology. About 70 percent of the world’s cellphones are based on GSM chip technology. The remainder of the world, primarily the U.S. and Japan, uses CDMA technology. Coiley said most U.S. and Japanese business travelers already own cellphones with a quad-band chip that will allow its use anywhere in the world. But because the world’s largest business aviation fleet by far is in the U.S., any system AeroMobile develops will permit the use of any cellphone technology, said Coiley.

Coiley said the concept for in-flight use of cellphones is in essence one of creating a “country” consisting of the world’s airways. This in turn will result in a user-fee structure similar to international roaming tariffs. “Our target is $3.50 per minute for AeroMobile service,” he said, “and we think that is achievable.”

Mobile phone maker Ericsson has also jumped into the in-flight cellphone market with a line of multi-band hardware aimed at the international traveler.

The product was launched at the Paris Air Show in June last year–the Ericsson RBS 2708 is a 12-MCU piece designed to communicate with GSM phones through special onboard antennas and existing satcom transceivers.

The Ericsson box will be able to handle 58 simultaneous phone calls, making the technology an appropriate option. But like AeroMobile, Ericsson is focusing on business aviation as a secondary market.

While it appears to be a ready market with considerable demand, observers believe there are some roadblocks, not the least of which is the cost of $3.50 an hour. While considerably less expensive than existing ground/air voice communication, it is nonetheless not cheap.

It may also be that the advent of high-speed in-flight Internet access will make the in-flight use of a cellphone moot. If business travelers are already connected with cheap and ready access via e-mail and text messaging through onboard data sevices, do they need a cellphone?

Others, however, believe that the public, including business executives and wealthy individuals who are accustomed to being connected in every way, will still expect to have their cellphone as a ready choice.

Meanwhile, with in-flight cellphone use still in the wings, providers of current ground/air phone systems continue to see growth. Iridium announced late last year the number of aircraft fitted with its satellite communications equipment more than doubled from the previous year. Iridium subscribers in the aviation market surpassed 5,000, according to the company, adding that the number of aircraft fitted with Iridium-based data transfer systems had grown 200 percent.

Iridium and its sales partners signed a number of large accounts last year, among them a deal with fractional aircraft ownership giant NetJets to add Iridium phone systems to its jet fleet.

From a passenger perspective, cabin entertainment continues to be the single most important component of the business aircraft cabin, and more than ever they are discovering the same products in the air that were available on the ground.

Satellite live television has come of age, with coverage over most of the major markets–North America, Europe and the Middle East. Now some companies are touting the possibility of worldwide service.

Companies are already testing technology that would broadcast television programming to almost any location in the world over the Ku-band Connexion by Boeing satellites now being used for Web surfing.

The launch customer for the service is Singapore Airlines, and Rockwell Collins plans to introduce it to business aviation customers through its eXchange broadband satellite service when that service is certified in the second quarter.

The first passengers to actually sample the worldwide satellite live experience are likely to be those flying on a Bombardier business jet. According to Rockwell Collins, the Canadian OEM’s Global line of aircraft will be the launch platform for the system.

Moving-map technology has been improving no less quickly than in-flight satellite direct television. JetMap II, which Honeywell announced last year, has already taken a quantum leap forward with the addition of a set of high-resolution maps of major cities and sites such as the Hoover Dam and Eiffel Tower. The company has some 60 maps and sites available, and the total will grow to more than 300.

The JetMap II upgrade will also take the viewer closer with a jump from a six-level zoom to a seven-level zoom, and resolution is also improved. Still to come is an upgrade that will interface with “just about any cabin system” and offer a choice of touchscreens or remote control.

Flight Display Systems is adding some new features to its moving map, including better resolution, an expanded worldwide city database and additional languages.

More recently, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based company has been bringing some unique new products to the market. Among these is a 10.2-inch widescreen monitor that offers the viewer split-screen (right and left sides) capability. The unit comes at a cost of $4,186. The company is also researching split-screen capability on larger monitors.

Also new is the three-channel, 900-MHz, SB900X3 wireless audio transmitter box. The box, priced at $782, is no larger than a pack of cigarettes, said v-p of satellite systems Jay Healey.

Flight Display has received certification on the MD-87 for its 42-inch LCD monitor and has begun deliveries to its launch customer. The order calls for two monitors in each of eight aircraft to be delivered over the next two years. The company has also found a rather unusual customer for the $17,232 monitor in the form of a private owner who wants one installed in his Sikorsky S-76.

In the future is a 65-inch LCD monitor, for which the company expects certification by year-end. “We have a manufacturer and we have a launch customer,” said Healey.

Rosen Aviation introduced the prototype of its FliteView moving-map display at the 2004 NBAA Convention. It is now in production and was selected as standard equipment on the Gulfstream G150. According to a Rosen source, FliteView is compatible with the Collins Pro Line 21 cabin electronics systems.

The Eugene, Ore. company is also producing a new universal lift mechanism for 10- to 20-inch monitors, and a new 17-inch headliner fold-down screen.

LCD Displays Gain on Gas Plasma
No so long ago, if you wanted a video screen bigger than about 30 inches, your only choice was gas plasma, which was–and remains–power-hungry, heat-generating, altitude-change-sensitive and very expensive. If you wanted a smaller screen, LCD made more sense. But that is rapidly changing.

The 42-inch LCD monitor from Flight Display Systems weighs 29 pounds, about 50 pounds less than a comparable plasma unit. It consumes less power, generates less heat and–at $17,232–costs considerably less than the $23,000 plasma alternative.

One of the problems facing cabin-refurbishment specialists is creating an entertainment system that can be upgraded easily as technology improves. Raytheon Aircraft Services recently announced what it believes is at least a partial solution.

It is called Max Entertainment and allows Beechcraft and Hawker operators to choose option packages that include XM satellite radio, JetMap II moving map displays, DVD players, flat-panel monitors, Sennheiser wireless headsets, wireless remote controls and speakers.

According to Raytheon, factory-approved installation of its retrofit packages takes “substantially” less time than would installation of a typical, highly customized system. What’s more, installation may be done concurrently with a routine inspection or maintenance. Downtime may be as little as nine days for installation of a complete system in a King Air.

Passengers on today’s business aircraft want to remain connected, but they don’t necessarily want all the wires and plugs that come with it.

Rockwell Collins is looking closely at a wireless, handheld audio-video control that it expects to reach the airline market on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2008. But Bruce Thigpen, the company’s senior director of marketing for business and regional systems, says it is likely to appear even earlier in business airplanes.

PGA Avionics, meanwhile, has delivered its first Paradize II advanced cabin-management system, now in service on an executive Airbus A330. According to the company, based in Chateauroux, France, the system links all the airplane’s entertainment and light components to a single control panel or handheld remote. Similar systems are being developed for an executive Airbus A340 and two Airbus Corporate Jetliners.

Assessing Cabin Electronics

Customer knowledge today about office-in-the-sky communications technology seems similar to the level of understanding people had of personal computers 15 or 20 years ago. They know they need it, but they don’t necessarily know why or exactly what will fill that need.

Jetlab International, with the engaging motto “brain your plane,” isn’t selling monitors or DVD players. Instead, the French company, which has offices in Toulouse, the UK and the U.S., is selling expertise in the existing and still-to-come in-flight communication and entertainment systems.

For example, Jetlab can maximize the work rate of Swift64 by providing data compression and acceleration software. It can also advise clients on issues such as whether their needs would be best served by setting up a virtual private network or by using a less data-hungry ISN link.

By creating servers to run the communications, the company can incorporate software that will automatically sense the data needs of users at any one time and switch to the most cost-effective connection mode. For onboard Internet connections, Jetlab can add firewalls and virus protection and can set up Web portals, giving direct links to news sources and e-mail that reflect customer preferences.

For the most part, all the innovations, upgrades and new products are good news for customers. If you have the money, there isn’t much you can’t buy. But that comes with the admonition that today’s technology is tomorrow’s junk.

On the other hand, tomorrow is much closer than it used to be. And the challenges of size, weight, power and logistics are being rapidly solved.

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